The President’s Office of Employee Training (POET) will be rebranded as Cook County Works under a restructuring announced today by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Cook County Works Director Karin Norington-Reaves.
Preckwinkle said the name change comes as the agency initiates a major restructuring that will see it refocus its mission, reduce staff and streamline operations.
“The County also has several important economic development capacities that have historically been under-utilized. We have a real opportunity to redefine Cook County’s place as the economic hub of the Midwest,” said Preckwinkle. “Workforce development and job training is particularly critical as we continue to struggle through a prolonged economic downturn. I’m pleased to announce today that we have set forth a series of major reforms to reinvent the way we serve our residents.”
Currently, POET has 56 staff positions. As Cook County Works, that figure will be reduced to 33 positions. The reduction will allow the agency to realize a significant savings on personnel expenses: About $4.9 million – or more than 35 percent – of the agency’s $13.5 million annual budget is spent on personnel.
Norington-Reaves said the staff reductions were the result of a comprehensive review of the agency’s staff and job functions.
“Through the restructuring process, we identified opportunities to free up resources for direct programming. There were numerous redundant positions and job titles as well as positions that were misidentified. We’ve gone through a very thorough process to align titles with the functions of each position that fit within our new goals,” she said.
Norington-Reaves said the agency will be taking numerous steps to help staff find employment, including providing the opportunity to apply for new positions within the agency and matching employees with vacant positions throughout the County. Employees were given notice of the staff reductions today and the reductions will be completed in the coming months.
Norington-Reaves said Cook County Works reflects a mission change that is taking place as the agency merges with the Bureau of Economic Development. In addition to Cook County Works, the Bureau of Economic Development now oversees the County’s Community Development, Capital Planning and Building and Zoning functions.
While POET was an administrator and service provider, Cook County Works will be an administrator first and foremost. Norington-Reaves said these changes recommit the agency to its primary focus: Overseeing the provision of workforce services to south and west suburban Cook County.
“Our mission is not case management. There are workforce development groups and community organizations that are better suited to handle case management. While these changes represent a major restructuring of our agency, the reality is that we had been operating under a model that many states in the nation have moved away from,” she said.
“The beauty of the merger of this agency with the Bureau of Economic Development this is that now we’ll be integrating across agencies. We will be working to tie job training to employment opportunities and economic development. These elements are very closely connected and the new structure of our agency reflects this relationship. For example, economic development is as much about community development as it is about workforce training. When a new business moves into the area, they need a workforce that is ready to meet their needs. We need to communicate to businesses that, when they move into the area, they should have a plan in place and a willingness to hire locally,” she said.
The Cook County Works reforms begin now with the goal of completing the restructuring by August. A new accountability manager will be tasked with auditing sub-grant recipients and assuring their compliance with state and federal laws. A special projects manager will oversee programs to assist target populations including young people and veterans.
Another notable change calls for the reassignment of the Workforce Investment Board Liaison to report to the Workforce Investment Board Chair and the Cook County Board President instead of the POET Director and Deputy Director, which was a violation of federal policy guidelines.
Maria Saldaña, Director of the Bureau of Economic Development, said these changes come in anticipation of a reduction in funding from the state and federal government.
“We’re anticipating that the same revenue sources will not be there next year or the year after that. The sustainability of this agency and the critical workforce development functions it provides are essential and we’re making these changes now to ensure that we can continue to deliver services to Cook County residents who are unemployed and want to rejoin the workforce,” she said.